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Nigel Farage

Nigel Farage, March 2014. Photo: Chatham House

Faced with the threat of a Corbyn-led government, Farage abandons all anti-establishment pretence, writes Martin Hall

The Brexit Party’s announcement last week that it will only stand in Labour-held seats has exposed its class character for all to see. They will stand only where it hurts Labour the most. This means that they will put Dennis Skinner at risk – a leave-supporting socialist that some Brexit Party supporters admire – and give Theresa May a free pass, despite the fact that their party’s position is to lay much of the blame for the UK still being in the EU at her door. 

However, this deal – that nobody admits is a deal – is having teething troubles. Nigel Farage has criticised Boris Johnson for suggesting that the Brexit Party only stand in 40 seats, rather than in all British seats but the 317 currently-held Tory seats where it’s standing down. The Tories are offering to put up ‘paper’ candidates in these Labour-held seats, in theory giving the Brexit Party a free run at them. Farage rejected it because he wanted the Tories to stand down completely, which they’re not prepared to do. 

What do Johnson and Farage have in common? Vicious anti-leftism, even if there is still clearly disagreement about the best way of expressing that. Still, it is this shared strategy that has propelled this uneasy marriage: from Johnson’s point of view, it reduces the splitting of the Brexit-über-alles vote, and increases his chances of a majority; from Farage’s, it allows for a more efficient marshalling of resources and reduces the possibility of a Corbyn-led government and a second referendum. 

For Farage, this has trumped the importance of the form of Brexit on offer and pushed him into a quite incredible u-turn on Johnson’s deal, where he has apparently only just worked out that commitments to alignment now being in the political declaration rather than the withdrawal agreement means that they’re not legally binding. The deal, which Farage was calling a remainers’ charter, is now an acceptable form of Brexit, it turns out.

Since its formation in January, the Brexit Party has attempted to present itself as some sort of leavers’ vanguard party, at the head of a coalition of the democratically dispossessed. In so doing, it has sought to efface the actual divisions in the UK – class, left vs right – and replace them with a leave vs remain culture war. Of course, it is not unique in this regard, as ultra-remainists effectively push the same type of argument from the other side. We ought to see revoke and no deal in this sense as shibboleths that allow each side to carve out a niche for themselves in a febrile landscape: the Lib Dems know Article 50 will not be revoked and the Brexit Party know that the British ruling class will not allow capital to be unmoored from its European markets. 

What are the circumstances in which the Brexit Party has risen, then? As recently suggested in a Leave-Fight-Transform article, its rise can be seen as 

“an effect of the political impasse of the last three years; in particular, as a political grouping…that would not exist if two discrete sets of circumstances had not come about: the failure of the Tory party to deliver Brexit and the failure of a left argument for Brexit to gain traction”.

The Brexit Party has attempted to reduce these sets of contradictions to a simplistic binary of the people vs the establishment, despite its leader being a product of the latter. In simple terms, Farage comes from that section of the British ruling class that thinks that Britain’s past glories can be reproduced if it is free to make its own way in the world once more. As well as ignoring how British capital is currently tied (in particular via the City) to the EU, it also disavows Britain’s relationship to the US, which both Farage and Johnson will seek to strengthen in post-Brexit Britain. 

This is one of the ironies of the Brexit debate these last three years: as Costas Lapavitas and others have stated, there is no better deal for British capital than the one it currently has. Much of the Conservative Party knows this, hence Theresa May’s desire to get out of the EU while preserving a high degree of alignment. Brexit has always made most sense from the left, which is one of the reasons why there was such a concerted effort to frame the referendum in 2016 as between two warring versions of capital and to limit people’s exposure to left arguments for leaving. Having said that, those of us who have been arguing for Brexit from the left have to admit that we have not been winning the argument, consider the reasons for that, and work towards strengthening them whatever happens at the election next month. 

Unfortunately, a large section of the Labour Party, which is both Atlanticist and pro-EU, also knows that the interests of capitalism are best served within the EU, hence the huge push since 2017 to get Labour to move towards a remain position: this both shores up its historical role as the second party of capital and weakens the left in Labour. The party’s current policy of a second referendum on a negotiated deal vs remain has contributed to the growth of the Brexit Party, with a section of working class leave voters feeling that the party has turned its back on them. 

At next month’s election, there will be working class socialists who will vote for the Brexit Party in an attempt both to express their anger at Labour’s position, and in the mistaken belief that Brexit and a renewal of popular sovereignty can be achieved this way. It cannot. All the election of Brexit Party MPs will achieve is a hardening of the right in the Conservative Party, who they will vote with on a variety of issues other than Brexit. Also, as they are not standing in so many seats, the political logic of putting Brexit first will lead some of its supporters to voting for the Tories. 

That increases the chances of five more years of Tory government, five more years of austerity, five more years of climate crisis, five more years of zero-hours contracts: in short, five more years of neoliberalism and the privileging of capital over labour.

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